Assimilation by Alcohol: The role of France’s Mission Civilisatrice in the spread of alcoholism in twentieth-century Algeria

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 Nina Salouâ Studer, History, University of Bern, Switzerland

“Assimilation by Alcohol: The role of France’s Mission Civilisatrice in the spread of alcoholism in twentieth-century Algeria”


Presented to the conference:

Alcohol, Psychiatry and Society

St Anne’s College, Oxford, 29-30 June 2017

See: All ‘Alcohol, Psychiatry and Society’ conference podcasts

Abstract:There were few aspects of the lived reality of the situation coloniale in the French Maghreb about which colonial psychiatrist felt guilt. They were confident that they fulfilled their responsibility – healing, educating, and civilising on the one hand, and separating the dangerous from the merely ill on the other. They interpreted the French presence in North Africa as a positive force, with colonial psychiatry saving lives and improving the health of the colonised, just as North African civilisation was allegedly saved and improved by the French mission civilisatrice.

French colonial psychiatrists were sure, however, that French civilisation had somehow corrupted the initially stern and sober Maghrebis, collectively turning them from abstinents into alcoholics. Indeed, it was even argued by some that the increasing levels of alcohol consumption in a society reflected a shedding of primitivism. As such, alcohol and alcoholism were interpreted as a marker of civilisation, a barometer by which “progress” can be measured, even if this progress was not deemed to be positive. The famous Antoine Porot, for example, at the time a young psychiatrist, described in 1918 the issue of the rise of alcoholism among the North African soldiers in the French army as follows: “Alcoholism has caused much havoc on these virgin organisms and these men, who, for the most part, have never tasted fermented beverages and liquors before the [military] service, sometimes indulged in it with that immoderation peculiar to the primitives.”

This paper will analyse how the French colonial psychiatrists of the École d’Alger (1930s to 1962) dealt with the paradox of French civilisation causing medical and mental problems among the colonised, through the “promotion” of alcohol consumption, with it was assumed led to increasing alcoholism, among formerly abstaining North Africans. This paper will be founded on an examination of publications by members of the École d’Alger dealing with the issue of alcoholism among the colonised on a theoretical level and comparing this to their statements regarding their professional experiences with Muslim alcoholics in their care.



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